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The Magnitude of Miriam Through Midrash

For as long as I can remember, I’ve struggled to make the Torah meaningful to me.  In first grade, the boys in my class had already found strong and charismatic role models in Moses, Aaron, Abraham, and countless others. I, and the other girls in my class, were left to search for leaders in soft-spoken and often overlooked sisters and mothers. I searched this foundational document tirelessly for women who spoke up and stood their ground the way Moses and Aaron did. Eventually, I realized that these women did not exist in the text. The task was then clear; I would have to find, or rather, build my own role models with the scraps of biblical text that mentioned women.

After years of striving to find female figures to look up to, I found strength in the story of Miriam. Though she was not the heroine in the Exodus story, she led the women in celebration once the Israelites had crossed the parted Red Sea. Her role is rarely recognized as important, but her contributions to the Israelite people are invaluable. In the lines surrounding Miriam’s death, Rashi recognizes the vitality of her role in the Jewish people’s story because of a textual anomaly. He notices that the text mentions a lack of water immediately following Miriam’s death. He subsequently writes that the Israelites only had water for the forty years in the desert because of Miriam.  This medieval commentator recognized a crucial aspect of the Israelites’ survival, and one which otherwise would’ve gone unnoticed. The idea of water relating to Miriam is not new. In fact, her story is framed by water. She is first introduced when she sends Moses off into the river and watches over him. Rashi incorporates this element in order to make sense of the text, but also to enrich the Torah’s narrative surrounding Miriam.

Water is a simple necessity. Without water, people die within days. Despite its indispensable nature, water is something that most people, especially those who have never gone without it, don’t think about much. Miriam and the other biblical women are much like water; their role is vital, but goes virtually unnoticed. Rashi and others pick up on Miriam’s vital role only after, and perhaps because of, her absence in the original text. I love this midrash because it perfectly mirrors the role of women in biblical time periods, and unfortunately continues to reflect the state of affairs today. Women are critical to the proper function of society, yet many hardly notice their contributions. Why do we so often fail to appreciate what women do in real time, as we seamlessly do for men? Why is it that we only value water when we’re dehydrated?

Inherent in the nature of biblical text, and ancient text in general, is diminishing (or leaving out altogether) the contributions of women. Part of the reason I, and my fellow young Jewesses alike, have to construct heroes for ourselves is because the text is inherently patriarchal. At first glance, the stories are only the stories of the male hero’s bravery and leadership. But, we can’t rely on the one perspective in the text to give us the full picture. Because they aren’t recorded in the same way, we must demand to hear women’s stories. That is why midrash is so valuable. Midrash exists to push forward narratives and personalities that aren’t fully developed in the text itself.

Although most Jewish kids primarily think of Moses and Aaron when they think about leadership and role models, Miriam’s actions resonate with me. And though at a younger age I couldn’t seem to find an outspoken female leader, I’ve come to recognize the power of leaders like Miriam; women who quietly ensure the survival of an entire nation. Midrash has helped me see that these roles aren’t, in fact, so quiet. I hope that future generations of Jewish girls and women look at Miriam’s story and are able to see strength rather than passivity. But, above all, I hope that all of us, both inside and outside of the Jewish community, can appreciate water at all times, not just when we’re thirsty.

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How to cite this page

Fisher, Abigail. "The Magnitude of Miriam Through Midrash." 25 January 2017. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on December 18, 2017) <https://jwa.org/blog/risingvoices/magnitude-of-miriam-through-midrash>.

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